What will the future of ‘like’ bilaik?

The rise of quotative like (I was like, What?) has been swift and striking since it emerged a few decades ago. No word stays exactly the same, but the changes and extensions to like have been more noticeable than most on account of its versatility, popularity, and prominence.

So what will happen to like in the future? More change, if these tweets are anything to go by:

If you click on Sarah’s first tweet (or its date, in some browsers) you can read more follow-up discussion.

I would have been confused by what the child meant, and I’d probably have exhausted her patience long before figuring it out. The fact that Sarah Shulist is a linguistic anthropologist and Alexandra D’Arcy is a sociolinguist (who has done research on like) may have helped them infer the child’s intent more quickly in each case.

The rhetorical question What are you like? was in vogue in Ireland a few years ago to express teasing amazement at someone’s behaviour. It’s fun to imagine the line coming to mean, in one possible future, What you are saying?

Whether this usage moves beyond lexical/structural experimentation in first-language learners and becomes, say, part of teenagers’ speech remains to be seen. Probably not, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. Young people are the prime movers and shakers of language change.

The scenarios described in the tweets presumably arose because the children heard people around them using quotative like, and reformulated the grammar a little when internalising and then using it.

If you’ve heard this use of like or a related innovation, from a child or anyone else, do let me know.

Update: Linguist Neal Whitman tells me his son, aged four, used to say That’s what he was like to mean That’s what he was thinking, and even used to extract conversational-hedge like: I was like, just about to win, is what I was like. Neal wrote about this in 2004, and has followed up on my post at his own blog, Literal-Minded, where he documents ‘the journey of be like into syntactic regularity’.


In another future, this one fictional, depicted in the TV show The 100, David Peterson’s conlang Trigedasleng (which descended from a US English dialect) uses laik to mean ‘be’ and bilaik as a figurative copula and in various subordinating roles, such as to introduce hypothetical or conditional clauses. The words derive from our like and be like:

yu laik fisa = you are a healer

ai laik ticha = I am a teacher

ai bilaik ticha = I am a teacher, for all intents and purposes

Gona bilaik ai don fis op ste klir = The warrior that I cured is safe

ai don sen in chit bilaik ai gaf sen in = I’ve heard what I needed to hear

Examples are from The 100 Wikia, David Peterson’s blog, and smallerontheoutside‘s Trigedasleng Dictionary. You can get a feel for the dialect in this montage from the show (NB: contains spoilers):

Thanks to Sharon for tipping me off to Trigedasleng and the ‘futureteens from space’. For more like this, see my other posts on language and the future.


12 Responses to What will the future of ‘like’ bilaik?

  1. Mookie says:

    The self-effacing rhetorical “what are you / am I like?” has been in use in England and Scotland, anyway, much longer than a few years, probably from the very late 20th century on. Catherine Tate flogged it for awhile, as well, if I recall correctly (with considerably less success than appearing bovvered).

    • Stan Carey says:

      Gary Martin’s phrase dictionary, which I link to, says What are you like? ‘is of Irish origin although since the 1990s it has been used extensively in the UK, mostly by the young’. In the absence of more detailed etymology my use of ‘a few’ was deliberately vague, but ‘some’ or ‘several’ may have been a better choice.

  2. Vinetta Bell says:

    Good morning/afternoon, Stan:
    At first, I read your posts and responses as if they reflected the views of a privileged group of people who were challenging the traditional or historical use of language while the rest of us tried to master that language (i.e., the thinking as well as the words and sentences themselves). Today, after reading this post and its responses and viewing the video, I realize how limited and uninformed my thinking and responses have been to your communications, Stan. Yes, I realized long ago how precise you are in your discussions, Stan, but I am especially limited by my lack of familiarity with the dramatized programs (including movies and gaming) that youth and others engage in today. I know intellectually that the language of youth changes culture, including traditional views of one’s language; however, I had not (and still haven’t) fully internalized the full impact of those youthful influences. Being a professional educator who works on the state level in a relatively new country within the global scope of humanity, I now wonder with greater depth of insight just what our educational future holds for those of us who think we are preparing students for the 21st century within a global community. Maybe the wrong people are teaching the wrong people. Could it be that flipped instruction should mean that students need to teach teachers? I don’t know. I’m merely reflecting this morning (afternoon to you) during this lull in my work as we prepare for the closure of schools and offices during the holidays. If my comments today do not pointedly address the point(s) you are making in this blog, then please consider my comments today to be the reflections of a sluggish thinker.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Good morning, Vinetta, and thanks for sharing your thoughts on language change. I don’t think I challenge the historical use of language (I’m more likely to savour it), but I do challenge some of the commentary on it, such as that of the Latin-inspired 18thC grammarians whose influence on English usage was not always well-informed or constructive.

      Standardisation of the language has been hugely beneficial and remains extremely valuable, but what counts as standard changes with time and place and is subject to ongoing marginal modification. So it makes no sense to me to expect linguistic standards to be uniform and remain the same: too many variables and pressures bear upon English for that. Every generation introduces new variations, some of which may ultimately become widespread or standard; for this and other reasons I strongly oppose the denigration of nonstandard forms so common in popular discussion.

      Recently I saw someone complaining about new slang terms, saying they were ‘stupid’ and made their users sound like ‘idiots’. Such hostility is unpleasant and unfounded (I’ll return to this in a future post): we can learn a lot by listening without prejudice to how young people use language. Neil Postman would have agreed wholeheartedly with your idea about students teaching teachers; it’s something he explored persuasively in Teaching as a Subversive Activity.

  3. Reminds me a little of the gangsta-style speech… e.g.
    –Bitches be like, ‘don’t you disrespect me!’
    Maybe the child is just pretty gangster…?

    I’ve definitely heard the Irish version (‘What are you like?’) for a couple of decades, but couldn’t vouch for it beyond that.

  4. astraya says:

    I feel *really old*.

  5. elmediat says:

    Fascinating post.

  6. […] it, and I’ve never heard it from my younger son Adam. But I was thrilled to read a recent blog post from Stan Carey which embedded a Twitter conversation between like-expert Alexandra D’Arcy and linguistic […]

  7. […] established impressively fast and is leading to some remarkable usages in younger generations: children saying things like ‘What’s Ernie like?’ to mean ‘What’s Ernie […]

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